Living in the Past – Julian Stockwin
Posted on: 31/10/2018
I write the Thomas Kydd series, set in the Great Age of Fighting Sail, the period of the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1793-1815). One of the questions I’m often asked when I give talks about my books is would I liked to have lived back then. It’s an interesting point to ponder, especially given the creature comforts we enjoy today like a bracing hot shower in a cold morning and the push-button warmth of central heating. Then there’s the wonders of the modern age such as the internet, medical advances that have prolonged life by decades, ease of global travel and so forth. But the Georgian age, although to modern eyes a hard and brutal time for many, has aspects that draw me to it irresistibly.
Moon rocket of its day
At the height of the Age of Sail the man-of-war was the moon rocket of its day, a complex self-contained community of some 800 men, and as arcane. Day and night it would move faster than a man could run and was far taller than most buildings ashore. And it was a time when man, with just his wits and courage, undertook great ventures out of sight of all land-dwellers at home. To me there is something alluring and personally compelling about a sailing ship under full canvas with nothing but the ocean winds and the skill of the mariner to carry her to the four corners of the world.
The great heroes of the age
In my books I often write about Kydd’s encounter with real-life characters from history. How I would love to be able to meet some of the giants that strode the Georgian stage! Of course there will never be another Nelson and to have been one of his Band of Brothers would have been a truly unique experience. Yet I would have been equally intrigued to get to know Lord Thomas Cochrane, whom I do in fact write about in my latest book A SEA OF GOLD. One of the most daring and courageous sea captains of the Napoleonic era, he was an enigmatic and controversial character – did I capture this accurately in the book? And there are many others on my Bucket List – such as Black Dick Howe, who was said never to smile unless he was going into battle; Admiral Collingwood: ‘Old Cuddy’ who gave so much to his country, dying at sea just four days after he was finally recalled home; Admiral Duncan, as gracious to an enemy in victory as courageous and single-minded in battle, to name just three.
Eat, drink and be merry!
Being a bit of a trencherman myself I empathise with the Georgian’s love of food and drink. How splendid would it be to sit down to a feast, washed down with beer, wine and port, along the lines of this one that diarist and parson James Woodforde gave for three friends. First course: a couple of boiled chickens, a tongue, a leg of mutton with capers and a batter pudding. Second course: roast duck, green peas, artichokes, tarts and blancmange (Georgian ‘courses’ included a number of both sweet and savoury dishes.) Then almonds and raisins, oranges and strawberries. And this was just a humble offering given by the man to his friends! Much more lavish meals saw a dozen or more dishes in each of up to five courses, along with the finest of wines.
A rich and wonderful vocabulary
Sadly, some of the colourful words that my hero Thomas Kydd was familiar with are not really in use today, the PC movement being in some part responsible…
Here’s five I picked at random
‘strut–noddy’ – a poseur who doesn’t realise what a ridiculous figure he is
‘fubsy wench’ – healthily chubby female
‘oragious’ – superlative, as in a raucous time ashore
‘puckle–headed loon’ – fool with a vacant expression
‘to clap to your tally’ – add to your reputation
The Georgian Age had huge life and vigour, qualities that I sometimes feel are missing in the modern day. So I have to say, yes, on balance, I would have loved to have lived back then! Roll on, time travel…
Julian Stockwin’s next book, A Sea of Gold, is out now.